Evening dress, 'Delphos', womens, pleated silk, Mariano Fortuny, Venice, Italy, 1910-1920
Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949) was a Spanish artist and designer who registered many extraordinary inventions. His most successful patent was for the 'Delphos' gown, which he first designed in 1907. The finely pleated silk gown represented the classic, ideal form. It freed women from the constraints of the corset and now epitomises Fortuny's style.
The 'Delphos' gown was worn in the early twentieth century by some of the most avant-garde women in Europe and America. Fortuny was to repeat it, with only subtle variations, over the next forty years. Fortuny also designed exquisite gowns of printed and stencilled velvet with panels of finely pleated silk. He saw himself as an artist and had no aspiration to be part of high fashion with its constant change. He blended his love for medieval history and classical Greece with a fascination for technology and the skills of the craftsman. Working closely with his wife, Henriette, their work combined the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement and Modernism.
Henriette assisted Fortuny in the manufacture of unusual dyes and pigments and also made up the garments. They devised unique printing and stencilling techniques for the exquisite silks and velvets. Only the tiny Venetian glass beads threaded onto silk cord at the neck and armholes were made elsewhere. 'Delphos' gowns were dyed individually in a wide range of unusual colours. Delicate silk was processed on porcelain rollers to create fine, uneven pleats, one of his many innovations. The dresses were finally rolled up into a tightly twisted ball and presented in a small silk bag, perfect for travelling.
The production process took place at the Palazzo Orfei, the palace in Venice where Fortuny spent the most creative period of his life. His family had moved there when he was eighteen to relieve his allergy to horses.
In 1927 an American interior designer, Elsie McNeill, discovered Fortuny's work and asked if she could sell his goods in America. This venture proved highly successful until the second world war made imports impossible.
After Fortuny's death in 1949, Henriette persuaded Elsie to manufacture the Delphos gowns again and a revival occurred. Following an exhibition held in the Los Angeles County Museum in 1967, Fortuny's style re-emerged. His work was featured in fashion magazines and soon became among the most highly valued collectable garments at international auctions, a status they still hold today.